Three parking spaces reserved for delivery drivers in front of Cloud Kitchens’ 4131 N. Rockwell St. location Feb. 18, 2021. On average Cloud Kitchens services between 50 to 75 food delivery orders per hour. Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago

NORTH CENTER — Cloud Kitchens has frustrated neighboring businesses and residents since the startup opened last year in North Center. 

Cloud Kitchens specializes in providing commercial “ghost kitchens” for delivery-only restaurants, avoiding typical overhead, licensing and hiring requirements. The North Center location is home to several restaurants that only offer takeout or delivery, the largest of which is Chick-fil-A. It also has been the site of Monti’s Cheesesteaks while its owner rebuilds after a fire.

But neighbors and Ald. Matt Martin (47th) never wanted the operation to set up shop there and are increasingly raising alarms about constant problems around the site. They’ve said traffic has surged in the area, there aren’t enough parking spaces for all the drivers, neighboring businesses are being hurt and litter is piling up.

Last month, the city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department hosted a community meeting with Martin to address numerous traffic and parking complaints from neighbors. In response, Cloud Kitchens promised a plan to mitigate the complaints. 

Martin and the city’s business department will review Cloud Kitchens’ mitigation plan in more detail Monday and discuss next steps to address the parking and traffic issues.

Neighbors told Block Club they’ve seen little improvement over the past month — but Cloud Kitchens’ representatives said they’re making changes they hope can turn things around.

Traffic, Parking Issues

Chief among neighbors’ concerns about Cloud Kitchens is the amount of drivers — and, with them, parking issues — the business has brought to the area.

That traffic is key to the business’ operations: Drivers have to drop off supplies so food can be made, and customers and food delivery drivers have to come by to pick up orders. Neighbors have said the numerous drivers slow drown traffic, use up all the parking spots in the area — including for unrelated businesses, meaning customers then can’t get to them — and will even double park.

“It’s all about volume, volume, volume for them,” said Jeff Jenkins, a member of the North Center Neighborhood Association. “Their business model is to get a many third-party drivers in and out within the hour.”

Cloud Kitchens is trying to cut down on parking issues by renting out 15 spaces at a parking lot at 4111 N. Rockwell St. It will use that as a staging area for drivers picking up food and for employee parking starting March 8.

Julian Benson, Cloud Kitchens’ safety supervisor, said the company will also start using a tablet to check in delivery drivers so they can stay in their cars and have food brought up to them to keep traffic on the street moving. That system isn’t in place yet.

The company already stopped letting people pick up orders for Chick-fil-A to cut down on customers double parking. Now, people can only get those orders through a third-party delivery driver, Benson said.

But issues persist.

Proposed traffic plan for Cloud Kitchens’ 4131 N. Rockwell St. location after March 8, 2021. Credit: Provided.

Benson and two security guards were on the street Thursday morning, trying to prevent delivery drivers and people dropping off supplies from double parking.

The trio directed drivers to three parking spots in front of Cloud Kitchens or told them to circle the block until a parking spot was available. Drivers would get out of their cars and run inside Cloud Kitchens to pick up the food orders.

But Benson and the other guards weren’t always successful in getting drivers to park in the spots because there were so many coming and going.

And Martin said he and his staff still receive daily complaints about Cloud Kitchens from neighbors. He plans to continue to monitor the situation as more of the plan is put into effect, he said.   

“Until Cloud Kitchen moves a significant majority of its delivery drivers and semi-trucks off the public way and into a private staging location, I fully expect that the company will continue to have a large and deleterious effect on surrounding businesses and residents,” Martin said in a statement.

While Benson was directing delivery drivers Thursday morning, staff at the nearby Royal Treatment Veterinary Center, Stay Dog Hotel and Heal Veterinary Clinic were trying to get customers not to double park as they all competed for the same handful of spots.

“We drove up and down Rockwell probably three times and ended up double parked because we couldn’t find any parking,” said Brad Lown, who took his dog, Elko, to Royal for a check-up Thursday. It took Lown and his wife about an hour to snag a parking spot in front of Cloud Kitchens.

In that time, more than 20 cars came and went from Cloud Kitchens to pick up food.

“With the number of delivery drivers that are coming and going, it’s really a hassle and its frustrating,” Lown said.

‘Putting That Plan Into Action’

Deidra Suber, general manager for Cloud Kitchens, said last month Cloud Kitchens fills 50-75 orders per hour.

In response to continued complaints from neighbors that Cloud Kitchens’ efforts to address the traffic and parking issues are falling short, Suber said the mitigation plan needs to be given time to succeed.

“We are committed to putting that plan into action now,” she said.

Fabian Romo, owner of Found Chicago Board and Training Center, said the only way to resolve this is to have Cloud Kitchens cut down on the number of orders it fulfills in an hour or to move to an area of the city that is zoned for the kind of traffic it is generating. 

“Even with the logistical changes in the mitigation plan, the reality is there will still be so many cars coming in and out of a two-way street, creating a bottleneck of traffic,” Romo said.

“There’s plenty of commercial areas in Chicago that companies like UPS are using. Those areas are designed for the vehicles coming in and out all day making deliveries. Rockwell is a light manufacturing district next to family homes that just isn’t designed for such a high flow of vehicles.”

Romo, other business owners on the block and their employees are spending a lot of their time on the street trying to direct traffic and telling drivers pulling up, regardless of why they’re there, that they can’t double park on the street, he said.

“It’s a clusterf—, excuse my language. But there’s just too many cars coming down the street at one time,” Romo said.

Telling drivers to circle the block rather than double park essentially created a fast food drive-thru that has taken over the neighborhood during the lunch and dinner rush, Jenkins said.

“It’s like a Portillo’s drive-thru but with armed security guards. It’s bonkers, man,” Jenkins said.

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Lincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park reporterrnrnalex@blockclubchi.orgnnLincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park Twitter @avhndz